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From Ancient Greece to Pyeongchang

The Olympics and pseudo-religion

From Ancient Greece to Pyeongchang

If sport mirrors the society in which it exists, few sporting events provide stronger reflection than the Olympic Games. As the XXIII Winter Games capture the world’s attention over the next few weeks, Christians wonder how to experience this grand spectacle of sport, international culture and pseudo-religion. We also question the larger role of sport in the Christian life, and whether our participation and spectatorship is “fair game” or “out of bounds.” We participate in sport knowing it can reflect both the good and bad in human nature – disciplined, humble and constructive actions alongside excessive, selfish and destructive ones. Sport is capable of grand outcomes and sentiment, from the peace initiatives on the Korean peninsula leading into these Olympics, to the team of refugees who competed in the 2016 Rio games, and even the ping pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s. Because it is people who are the actors in sport; we mirror and reflect either the good or the bad. And as Christians we can reflect either the God who gifted us with sport or some other, lesser image. In sport, as in other areas of life, the challenge for Christians is to develop an approach that allows us to “do all things for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:14, 31). It is interesting that even the founder of the modern Olympic games recognized the importance of a religious approach to sport.

Pierre de Coubertin, reviver of the Olympics in 1896, talked of sport as “a religion with its church, dogmas, service . . . but above all a religious feeling.” Coubertin imagined his games as full of the same religious sentiment as the ancient Greek games. While Christians might agree with Coubertin that sport can enable transcendent religious experience, none would equate sport with Christianity. Yet something can be learned from him about how and why our approach to sport matters.

Cultural events like the Olympic Games emerged in 19th century Europe as a way to fill the spiritual vacuum left by an increase in secularism. Coubertin infused his games with religious sentiment, projecting “Olympism as religion . . . above all kinds of dogmatic absolutism against other social beliefs and conditions.” Just as the ancient Greeks played in the sacred space of Olympia, Coubertin sought to establish the athlete himself as the conduit of this pseudo-religion of sport. He called this the religio athletae. In the modern games this reverence was derived not from “sacrificing solemnly before the altar of Zeus,” but from “taking an oath of honour . . . and above all in striving to keep it.” Coubertin did not intend Olympic sport to be actual religion, but instead to have religious rhetoric that would ensure athletes had a reverent approach to participation. Watching only a few minutes of the opening ceremony this year, especially the Olympic oath, torch and other sacred symbols, confirms the success of the International Olympic Committee in fulfilling Coubertin’s plan.

Modern Christians also connect sport and religion for their own reasons. Many have seen sport as an effective opportunity for spiritual formation and development, for confronting socio-ethical problems like doping and gender inequality, and even for communicating the gospel (the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example, or Athletes in Action). Sport has been an effective tool for Christians. But we’ve also wrestled with deeper implications of sport in the Christian life. Perhaps this too is also a matter of approach.

The case from both sides
Our Christian tradition can be characterized more by an ambiguity toward sport rather than outright rejection. Christian theology has high regard for the body and, at times, even sport. Our understanding human nature and personhood, and what it means to be the imago Dei, can also influence whether and how we participate in sport. Church fathers cautioned against participation in sport due to the idolatrous and sometimes pagan rituals found in the Olympic and local Roman sports of their day. Some also warned that the body was a source of distraction and idolatry, influenced by a dualism that valued the immaterial and eternal (soul) compared with the material and temporary (body). At the same time, the belief in the physical resurrection of the body consistently presented throughout Church history contrasts any simple caricature that might reject sport outright.

The importance of the body and sport has also been apparent in Christian theology and church practice, supported at least in part by Justin Martyr, Augustine and even Aquinas in his view that it is “possible to sin by having too little play in one’s life.” There have at times been associations of play and sport with idleness and sin; still, clergy throughout Christendom also embraced play and sport within their daily lives and spiritual practices. Christians have also been challenged with the question of, “Where is God in sport?” While some contend that there is no place for God to inhabit sport because of its self-serving nature and focus, others argue that God is in fact present and that Christians can experience transcendence because of the embodied nature of sport.

God in our sporting
“O God, in the course of this busy life . . . grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation” (Book of Common Prayer, 825).

From the gore of the gladiatorial contests that influenced Theodosius I to ban the ancient Olympics in 393AD, to the consumerist and winner-take-all competition of today’s major professional sports, Christians and non-Christians alike recognize the extreme values in tension within sport: beauty and violence, fair play and cheating, altruism and narcissism, playfulness and despair, community and selfishness. But these tensions are present in many areas of Christian life. Our work can be driven by both pride and humility; our intellectual pursuits by both selfish and godly ambition; and our relationships by both self-absorption and altruism. Yet we strive to live all of life in worship to God despite these real tensions. Christians through the ages affirm that God created physical matter, including the body, as a good temple for him to inhabit. They also affirm the goodness of leisure and playful activities that provide rest and renewal.

In the end, then, it is our approach to sport that either enables it to be pleasing to God and satisfying to us, or relegates it to idleness, excess and even idolatry. If we spectate and participate out of playful joy and gratitude, celebrating God’s goodness to us in the gift of these activities, then even our sporting can be godly. If we participate only out of selfish desire to win no matter what, or to see ourselves or our team defeat another person, team or another’s record, then sport stands guilty of charges from those who warn against its spiritual and social dangers. There is much in modern sport that needs renewal.

But in this Olympic season, Christians do well to heed Coubertin’s charge that the way to preserve the best in sport comes down to our approach. With an approach of celebration and thankfulness to God, we can continue to enjoy the thrilling and captivating Olympic Games, as well as other sports we care so much about. With this in mind, Christians can enthusiastically echo the Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius!”   

About the Author
From Ancient Greece to Pyeongchang

Sean Sullivan

Sean Sullivan is Professor and Chair of Kinesiology at California Baptist University. He writes on the intersections of sport and religion, and likes most of all to participate in sport with his wife and four children.